Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Britain's Necessary Strike

Britain’s public sector workers will be striking tomorrow, 30 November, in the most substantial labour action the country has seen in quite some time.  And the right-wingers are crawling out of the woodwork, the Cabinet Office, No. 10 Downing Street and the pages of the Independent to denounce organised labour (as opposed to the political party, which is not supporting workers) as a bunch of uncooperative, money-grubbing, selfish, unpatriotic drains on society.

Dominic Lawson is leading this charge with a harsh attack on the strike and on public sector workers in the Independent.  Unionised workers are, he contends, the “haves”, and they are battling it out against the “have nots”—you know, the poor little guys in the City.

But step back for a moment, forget all the things you’ve heard about greedy or valorous workers, and think about the logic of the situation.  It is true that many public sector workers are very decently-off.  They have decent wages, they have decent working conditions, they have good pension plans.  And the argument of the economic fundamentalists on the right is that we need to retrench (do we?), and that therefore, public sector workers should be prevented from living decent lives and pulled down to the level of those who are less well-represented.  That way everyone can be miserable, because it clearly wouldn’t make any sense to learn from the gains of public sector workers and to raise the standards for the rest of the workforce.

It is an argument that is designed to divide—to use today’s universal parlance—the 99% against itself.  It is an argument that suggests that we punish those who are smart enough and committed enough to have organised themselves in such a way to protect the value of their labour (and who, unlike the scions of the corporate world, aren't trying to live the high-life, but simply a respectable middle-class existence), deny that protection to others, and deliberately try to lower the living standard instead of implementing the kind of protection that would allow everyone the same quality of pensions, of pay and of working conditions as unionised labour. 

And we all owe organised labour something.  Because without them, there would be no 40-hour week, no eight-hour day, no paid vacation, no pensions, and no recourse to demand better working conditions.  And if Cameron and his government in Britain, and the Republican Party in the U.S. get their way, those protections will be steadily stripped away as organised labour is ground down and the material well-being of the workers it represents reduced.  And if they’re first asking public sector workers to work a few more years, and raising the retirement age, what’s to stop them—all in the name of the national good of course, to shield CEO bonuses and the wealth of the affluent from being tapped into—from asking for a longer work-day or work-week, or from permitting employers to hire and fire arbitrarily (something only the presence of Liberal Democrats in cabinet has prevented the Tories from legislating on)? 

And it is organised labour which helped to change the state’s sense of its purpose—a purpose which is being lost today.  At one point the state unabashedly served the interests of an economic and social elite.  But some experimentation with a little idea called ‘democracy’ convinced people that the state should spend a little more time looking after the welfare of its people and  a little less time waging wars which profited the people at the top or on shackling itself to the interests of commercial elites.  Today, the state is abdicating what in my view should be its primary responsibility, the welfare of its people.  Because I don’t think it’s right that the state should be around primarily to wage wars, which are almost never in the interest of the citizens who populate that nation.  It should be about more than serving the interests of financial and energy lobbies that can buy their way into the halls of power.  Its purpose should be to serve people and do all that it can to assure their well-being, not to extract their labour and use it to serve minority interests.

So what Lawson doesn’t understand (or more likely, doesn’t want to understand), is that tomorrow’s strike isn’t just about the pensions of public sector workers, although those might be the proximate cause.  It is about the role and purpose of government, the rights of people in a democracy, and the ability of those people to find common cause.  Lawson writes, “Within the U.S., those states closest to the European model of high public spending and influential public-sector unions are now facing a pensions crunch of similar severity”.  Unsurprisingly, he cites California as a key example.

Now Lawson’s misreading of the situation might stem from apparently not knowing anything about the example he is citing (i.e. California’s political system), or it might stem from coming at the problem from a particular ideological standpoint.  Because public sector pensions are not what is breaking California.  In the normal course of events, a responsible government, accountable to the public, would not be willing to compromise the well-being of its citizens by trying to undercut their material welfare (this welfare, after all, should be the raison d’être of that state).  It would not try to lower standards of living through cutting healthcare, education, access to public open spaces, regulations on pollutants and other social services.  But California’s legislators, a majority of whom do have the well-being of the workforce as a primary concern, are prevented from taking the logical route because 33 years ago an ill-informed, impatient public tied their hands for the foreseeable future by dramatically cutting back one key revenue stream altogether and preventing an elected majority of representatives from tapping into any of the other sources of revenue that virtually any democratic government anywhere in the world would normally have access to.  (This is why today people are advocating the reform of Prop 13.)

These voters passed control of California’s government and of the state’s purse strings, to a minority of legislators who make their home on the political right.  And voters have been complaining about the results ever since, but in their petulance, have been chronically unwilling to understand that they are part of the problem, and that the terrible system that exists today in California is in part of their making.  In other words, the “pension crisis” is the result of political choice rather than economic necessity.

Similarly, the pension crisis need not be a crisis in Britain if the country were less growth-oriented and more public-oriented, and if it were not governed by economic fundamentalists who see themselves as accountable to the financial privateers in the City and the economic gangsters who comprise the energy lobby.  In other words, David Cameron and George Osborne take their marching orders from the 1%, and Ed Miliband appears to be nice and comfortable on the political fence. 

Lawson’s silly outrage over the “inconvenience” the strike might cause misses the point of industrial action.  It is designed to create inconvenience, and to show workers’ labour is valuable and necessary for society to function.  And a day of “inconvenience” is nothing compared with the damage that the Government would inflict by neutering the public sector, and subordinating the rights and welfare of all workers—not just public sector workers—to the economic thuggery of the top few percent. 

Lawson points to the “gulf” of £74 between public and private sector workers weekly pay (a figure that has been called into question for a number of reasons, not least the salaries of nationalised banks having been included in the public sector for the recently-cited period), as though this is the gap that we should be getting outraged about instead of that between company directors and their employees.  Lawson is like a man who has driven up to the edge of the Grand Canyon, but who is then fixated by the rut his tire made in the ground.

And again, we should be asking ourselves why the solution is to try to take down those who are making decent wages and have decent pension programs, instead of bettering the conditions of those who do not.  We should ask why middle-class public-sector workers should bear all the cost when income inequality in Britain (as in the U.S.) is being exacerbated by a solicitousness for top earners.  We can’t even call it a laissez-faire economic doctrine, because it is very much hands on.  It involves Cameron and Osborne and the Tories in Britain, and the Republican Party and right-wing Democrats in the U.S. making all of the state’s apparatus and legislative power work as hard as possible for the good of those at the top at the expense of the rest of us.

The answer to our social conundrum is not to destroy protective measures for workers, but to expand them.  Unionisation brings considerable benefits to the workforce, and declining unionisation rates have been cited as one of the key causes of stagnating wages and inequality in California (A Portrait of California).   Unionisation has brought benefits to society at large, and the fight of public sector workers tomorrow is one in which all of us have an interest, on both sides of the water.  Because just as the irresponsible financial and energy interests cross over national boundaries, so too do the struggles of the majority.

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